Retro Fails: 10 Vintage Prescription & Over-the-Counter Drugs Which Proved Extremely Dangerous

heroin-ad (Image: Michael de Ridder, public domain)

Regardless of how you feel about vaccinations, there’s a feeling among many today that we’re becoming too dependent on prescription drugs. According to the NHS, about half of both men and women living in England were taking prescription drugs as of December 2014, and those prescriptions range from medication to lower blood pressure and cholesterol to major painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Numerous commercials on television in the United States advertise drugs that are supposed to make you feel better or live longer, and anti-depressants are ever popular.

Regulations are far more stringent today, of course, and over the years some ‘harmless’ pills have been taken off the market due to their negative side effects, some of them deadly. In the latest installment of our Retro Fails feature, we take a look at 10 vintage medications which never should have been passed over the counter.

10. Ascatco

There was an impressive amount of sleight-of-hand that went into Ascatco, even for a turn-of-the-century miracle cure. It was said to come from Austria, and it did… in a way. Austria Laboratory was located in New York, where they manufactured the cure with the incredibly exotic, European sound.

ascatco (Image: National Museum of American History)

As it was advertised in newspapers like The Milwaukee Journal, it was said to be one of the most powerful cures for asthma and other respiratory ailments. Seven small drops, in water, drank twice a day, and it wouldn’t just relieve asthma, it would get rid of it completely. Take it for long enough, and once you stopped taking it, your asthma would still be gone. So would your hay fever, bronchitis, or any other breathing ailment.

If, that was, you could stop taking it.

Ascatco was a concoction made from alcohol, opium and arsenious acid. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, it was extremely habit-forming even in very, very small quantities, much less the fourteen drops a day that was being prescribed. Ascatco is a good example, though, of the fine line the separates medicines from everything else. Since the Austrian Dispensary, where it was shipped from, wasn’t a drug store, it wasn’t even considered a patent medicine. It was, simply, an extremely dangerous type of quackery.

9. Kendal Black Drops

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was such a huge fan of Kendal Black Drops that he referred to them as “Old Black, the elexir of life”, likening them to the tempests that raged throughout the demonic darkness. A romantic notion, for sure.

opium-poppy (Image: via A Parcel of Ribbons)

Named for the Lake District in England, Kendal Black Drops were just one of a number of different types of medicines derived from opium. In many cases, they were medicinal – they were used as pain relief or as a sedative, but their highly addictive properties meant that it was a pretty dangerous thing to use with any regularity. Coleridge himself originally started using it for the pain associated with rheumatism, but his writings reveal that it wasn’t long before he discovered what he called the “magic effects” of Old Black and of opium. He used the notorious drops to open the doors of creativity and imagination, but he also opened some other doors – boils, hallucinations, debilitating pain, and digestive issues.

There’s a variety of different recipes for making the tonic, but they’re largely based around the idea that if it’s something that’s good for you, then it’s got to taste pretty bad. Kendal’s formula was a combination of opium, sugar, vinegar, and a handful of spices; the ingredients were mixed and allowed to sit for up to a week.

There were a couple different names for it, too, alternately known as Armstrong’s or Lancaster’s Black Drop.

8. Bayer Heroin

It’s pretty well-known that drug companies get up to the occasionally shady deal, and it’s also pretty well-known that the flagship product of Bayer was once heroin. That can almost be excused, considering it was only the turn of the 20th century, and drug testing was a little less strict than it is now.

bayer-heroin (Image: via Bonkers Institute)

Bayer wasn’t just marketing their Heroin brand medicine as the best – and cheapest – cough relief there was for adults, but there was a whole marketing campaign directed at children, as well. And that was well into the first decade of the 20th century – almost 15 years after doctors began reporting that their patients were building up a tolerance for Heroin – and that they were demanding more.

Children were being encouraged to take Heroin for much the same reason that adults were: to soothe their coughs. Some of the ads were eerie, and one even included a little boy, reaching for the bottle of Heroin that his mother was holding out of reach. Heroin was the rainy-day medicine, the medicine to make coughs go away and throats feel better.

It was ultimately, finally outlawed in the United States in 1924, after it had been available only through a prescription for 10 years. That absolutely isn’t the end of the story, though, and we’re not just talking about heroin as an illegal substance. Conspiracy theorists are pointing to the continuing campaigns for Heroin as signs of the pretty much complete lack of morals that drug companies have long been known for – and they’re also looking to today’s painkiller addictions, and pointing out that not too much has changed.

7. Mornidine

Mornidine meant well. The drug was designed to provide relief from morning sickness, and the vintage advertisements for it are pretty hilariously sexist, proclaiming that with Mornidine, she can cook breakfast for you again! No more suffering from all those inconvenient pregnancy side effects, getting in the way of womanly duties!

mornidine (Image: via Bonkers Institute)

It was advertised to work to suppress the “vomiting center”, or the portion of the brain that causes nausea and all the other side effects that go along with morning sickness. It was also hailed for its non-drowsy formula, meaning she’d be awake and chipper in plenty of time to cook that breakfast.

That advertisement was in the official journal of the Canadian Medical Association in July of 1959. It was available in the United States as well, and it was ultimately pulled off the market in 1969 after the Food and Drug Administration realized that it was causing some pretty nasty side effects. Hepatic lesions are masses that build up in the liver, ultimately leading to pain from swelling and pressing on nearby organs. Also reported was other types of liver toxicity and damage.

6. Dr. Nathan Tucker’s Asthma Specific

Compared to some of the ornate, flowery, beautiful vintage advertising out there, the turn-of-the-century ads for Dr. Nathan Tucker’s Asthma Specific look pretty plain. That was, perhaps, because the medicine spoke for itself.

Tucker’s-Asthma-Specific (Image: via The New Zealand Medical Journal)

An early type of inhaler, the Asthma Specific was ordered in liquid form, with a device that would allow the patient to heat and vaporize the liquid, inhaling it for relief of asthma symptoms. As it came from a mail order catalog, there was no prescription needed and no pesky doctors to go through.

Dr Tucker’s medicine did, in fact, speak for itself. It was a huge hit, with thousands and thousands of people sending away for it. Manufacturing processes being what they are, there’s been some debate as to the exact makeup of the compound that they were going for, but samples of the Specific were made up of cocaine and atropine, anywhere up to 3.5 percent cocaine.

The mixture was, of course, highly addictive and occasionally deadly. In 1908, it was linked with the death of a 36-year-old woman who had been on the inhaler for about two years. On its own, there might not have been a problem, but when she had dental work done – and another cocaine injection to numb the pain of that – she died from what was determined to be cocaine poisoning.

There were a handful of other asthma treatments that used cocaine as well – some with a hugely high percentage. Azma-Syde was up to 40 percent cocaine, and now, we know that the feeling of happiness and euphoria users were feeling wasn’t so much because they were getting relief from their asthma symptoms, but more because they were freebasing.

5. Delysid

Delysid is the brand name of a drug that’s much, much more familiar under another name – Lysergic acid diethylamide , or LSD. It was first created in 1938 by a chemist who discovered its hallucinogenic properties when he accidentally ingested a bit of it, and as Delysid, it was (for a short time) a major player in experimental psychiatry.

lsd (Image: William Rafti, cc-4.0)

When its creator, Albert Hoffman, accidentally – and then, purposefully – ingested it, he recorded experiences that he claimed allowed him into the mind of a schizophrenic. He also claimed that Delysid was an absolutely invaluable tool when it came to diagnosing the root cause of different types of mental illness, as it open his mind up to a sort of clarity that allowed him to see just where his problems began.

In 1967, Popular Science ran an article on a reporter who went on a clinically induced trip at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute. By then, LSD had gone from clinical to recreational in most instances, but there were still doctors that used the product in order to help certain types of patients. According to Temple University, alcoholics, addicts, and even patients struggling with their sexuality could benefit from a carefully controlled trip, which would allow their minds to wander into dark or secrets places that they might not otherwise ever go.

It’s a fascinating look into the history of psychiatry. Dr. Charles Shagass, the EPPI psychiatrist who took the Popular Science journalist on his LSD trip, was pretty frank about just how much they didn’t know about the drug that they were giving their patients. They knew that things could go very, very badly, and they knew that there was an antidote – chlorpromazine – that needed to be kept nearby, just in case. And they knew that suggestibility might have something to do with what looks like a pretty high success rate of treating patients; needless to say, it’s since fallen out of favor with the medical industry.

4. Distaval

Distaval was just one of the brand names of thalidomide, and the tragic effects of the drug are still being felt today. In the 1950s, thaliomide was created by a West German company called Chemie Grunethal, and it was on the market by 1957. Before it was pulled off the market, it was distributed to more than 40 different countries, where it was advertised as a sedative and as a drug that could be taken by pregnant women who were suffering from morning sickness.

thalidomide (Image: via Wikipedia, cc-4.0; above: birth defects associated with Thalidomide)

Only on the market for a few years in Canada and Europe, the drug was associated with pretty much every type of horrific birth defect you can think of. It would impact whatever part of the baby was developing when it was taken, and has been linked to everything from deafness and blindness to deformed limbs, with some babies born without entire vital organs. Even a single dose was enough to cause permanent damage.

No accurate count has ever been taken of the babies born with defects resulting from the drug, and there’s never been any way to accurately determine how many more died. It’s estimated that there’s somewhere around 5,000 survivors today, born to mothers who took thalidomide, with most receiving small comfort from the drug companies in the form of settlements or payments. Even that was not without a fight, though, with many Canadian families fighting for years to get access to grants and settlements, with some only getting the official government acknowledgment of their lifelong difficulties in 1991.

3. Cocaine Cough and Toothache Drops

Cocaine was a hugely popular ingredient in all kinds of medicine, especially cough drops. Because cocaine has properties that act as a topical anesthetic, that means it was great at stopping coughing and sore throats – even in children.

cocaine-toothache-drop (Image: via United Academics)

One of the most popular forms of cocaine and medicine, cocaine toothache drops – like those manufactured by Lloyd Manufacturing Co. and costing only 15 cents a package – weren’t just popular because they worked, but also because they had a tendency to put anyone in a better mood. And cough drops were so popular that individual pharmacies would often buy them in massive, bulk quantities, then repackage them with their own names, logos and labels.

One brand in particular, Dragees Antiseptiques, from Belgium, targeted a very particular audience – those that relied on their voices for their jobs. They advertised that they were perfect for “singers, teachers and orator”, and getting rid of cocaine in products like this wasn’t easy.

It wasn’t until late in the Victorian-era that doctors started to not only realize how addictive these products were, but they also started to realize that they needed to be a little bit more responsible on how easily available drugs were – and who could get a hold of them.

Coca wine was, of course, also hugely popular, with – as we’ve mentioned – Vin Mariani even getting the thumbs’ up approval and gold star award from none other than the pope himself.

2. Placidyl

Placidyl was in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, used to treat insomnia. It was especially effective in patients with allergies or those that didn’t respond well to other sleep aids. Even when it was prescribed, it was one of those drugs that was known to be incredibly addictive, and one of those drugs that doctors were advised – strongly – to weigh the risk factors against the potential for good before prescribing.

placidyl (Image: via

In 1982, the drug hit the headlines when U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist checked himself into a hospital to kick his addiction to it. It slowly began to come out that between 1972 and 1981, he had been consuming as much as a 3-month supply in a single month. His habit wasn’t noticed until he started slurring his speech in public, and afterwards, in 1986, a promotion and leaked medical records showed just how addicted he was to the sleeping pills – and how dangerous they could potentially be.

It was officially defined as a “sedative-hypnotic”, with experts from Johns Hopkins stating that no one should be taking more than the recommended dose – 500 mg – for more than a week. At the height of his addiction, Rehnquist was taking 1,500 mg every day. Coming off the drug meant hallucinations, and distorted perceptions, and the media storm that followed the release of information on his drug habit and rehab helped shed a whole new light on the potential dangers of prescription drugs.

1. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was marketed as nothing short of a miracle syrup for mothers, struggling to get their children and infants into a pain-free sleep while going through the difficulty of teething.

mrs-winslows-soothing-syrup (Image: US National Library of Medicine via The Quack Doctor)

First hitting the market in 1845, the story goes that it was a pair of chemists that first marketed the medicine in quantity. It was based on an old home remedy from the real Mrs. Winslow, the mother-in-law of one of the chemists. A nurse who often cared for young children, she had concocted the “soothing syrup” and, in all fairness, it did exactly what it claimed to do.

It also contained 1 grain of morphine per fluid ounce, along with some alcohol for good measure. In addition to relieving teething pain and helping children get to sleep, it was also said to be one of the best remedies on the market for diarrhea and other stomach issues – a now-known side effect of the morphine.

The New York Times even published a series of letters in December of 1860, written by parents who were grateful for the fast-acting syrup that allowed not only their child to sleep, but the whole family. There were no more endless nights, no more crying, no more hours upon hours of pain, all thanks to a remedy that cost a mere 25 cents per bottle.

It’s not known how many children and infants died from the syrup, but in 1868, one of the developers and manufacturers of the formula – the son-in-law of Mrs. Winslow – was testifying in court. At the time, he went on record as stating their annual sale was more than 1.5 million bottles, but it was decades – 1911 – before the American Medical Association spoke out against the dangers of the syrup. And it was almost another two decades before it was finally off the market.



Popular Posts


Latest Articles



Explore Urban Ghosts


Abandoned & Urbex


Send this to friend

Urban Ghosts uses cookies to enhance your browsing experience and to serve you with advertisements that might interest you. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies. Privacy Policy

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.